Tosho-gu・the Grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu


(Divine Prince of Eastern Light)

1st Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu

LOCATION: Kunōzan, Nikkō, Tōkyō (Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji), various locations around the country

Grave containing Tokugawa Ieyasu's remains.
Grave containing Tokugawa Ieyasu’s remains (Nikko)

Nikkō Tōshō-gū

Nikkō Tōshō-gū is one of the most famous shrines in all of Japan. It’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the whole country. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and so it’s in excellent condition, so it’s well-documented in books and on the internet. For that reason my descriptions of Tōshō-gū probably won’t be long. If you want more info about Nikkō Tōshō-gū (or some other Tōshō-gū), I’ll give some links at the end of the article.

What the hell is a Tōshōgū?

This name marks the enshrinement of the kami named 凍傷大権現 Tōshō Dai-Gongen, the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shōgunate. The name roughly translates as “The Supreme Incarnation of the Divine Prince of Eastern Illumination” (or “Light”).

Technically speaking, Ieyasu was only shōgun for about 2 years. Although he was the de facto ruler of Japan from 1600, he officially became shōgun in 1603. He retired in 1605 and became an 大御所 ōgosho (retired guy pulling the strings from behind the scenes). He did this to establish a clear dynasty and try to oversee the succession of his shōgunate for as long as he could. Around 1607, he moved into 駿府城 Sunpu-jō Sunpu Castle in Shizuoka where he was running things from behind the scenes. Ieyasu finally kicked the bucket in 1616 and was buried and enshrined at nearby 久能山 Kunōzan Mt. Kunōzan. Kunōzan Tōshō-gū is still very much active today.

Kunozan Toshogu - Tokugawa Ieyasu's original grave
Kunozan Toshogu. The original!

As per Ieyasu’s express wishes, on the one year anniversary of his death, the second shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada, moved the remains to the mountains of Nikkō and built a modest temple and shrine complex there. Then they deified Ieyasu as the divine protector of Japan.

The third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu idolized Ieyasu and threw wads of money at Tōshō-gū for expansion projects. This developed the site to the size that it is today. I’ve heard that Iemitsu’s building project cost about $400,000,000 in modern terms. It immediately became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the Edo Period and remains one until today.

Fight Between Kunōzan Tōshō-gū and Nikkō Tōshō-gū

Interestingly, there has been an ongoing fight between Kunōzan Tōshō-gū and Nikkō Tōshō-gū. A few years back Kunōzan began asserting that the Ieyasu’s remains never left Shizuoka and that their little shrine is the actual grave of the shōgun. The shrine, in conjunction with Shizuoka Prefecture’s Board of Tourism, began using the phrase 余ハ此處ニ居ルハ yo wa koko ni iru “I’m here” or “I will always be here” in their marketing goods. Well, you can imagine that the larger, more famous UNESCO site in Nikkō called bullshit. No sir, not having it at all.

The two shrines have been bickering about this for about 10 years now, citing old documents and occasionally discovering new ones. The fight is at a standstill, though, because neither shrine will agree to open their tombs to check and see who – if anyone – is actually in there. They claim it’s out of respect to Ieyasu and the Tokugawa clan. However, we all know they won’t do it because one of them will be wrong and will lose out on tourist money. Nikkō actually has very little to lose because of their fame and the sheer size and extravagance of the shrine precinct, but tiny Kunōzan has a lot to lose if it’s proven they’re just bluffing.

Main gate of Nikko Toshogu.
Main gate of Nikko Toshogu.

While there are many iconic buildings at Nikkō Tōshō-gū, two pieces of artwork achieved international renown when Japan ended its isolationist policy during the bakumatsu. Those are 三猿 sanzaru the 3 “wise” monkeys and 眠リ猫 nemuri neko the sleeping cat.

Don’t Say “Kekkō”

There is a useless proverb in Japan, 日光を見ない中は結構と言うな Nikkō wo minai uchi wa kekkō to iu na, which always comes up in regards to Nikkō Tōshō-gū. I can’t think of any situation where a person would use this proverb except when they go to see Tōshō-gū and some old person quotes it. It translates as “Don’t say 結構 kekkō until you’ve seen 日光 Nikkō.” The gist of the expression is “you ain’t seen shit ‘til you seen Nikkō Tōshō-gū.” The stupid thing about this proverb is that there’s some kind of half-assed ‘rhyme’ based on the last syllables of both words こう kō. But in modern Japanese, 結構 kekkō is a pretty blasé term. It means “decent” or “that’s fine” or even “no thank you.” Maybe in the Edo Period the meaning was stronger – and maybe people had a higher tolerance for trite expressions. Also, there’s no situation that I can even imagine where saying this would be appropriate, except when you visit Nikkō Tōshō-gū – and even then surely there’s something better to say…. like “wow!”

Ueno Toshogu in the bakumatsu or very early Meiji.
Ueno Toshogu in the bakumatsu or very early Meiji.

Don’t Say “Imaichi” Either

The phrase いまいちだ imaichi da (“close but no cigar”) is said to derivd from this area. There was a small town next to Nikkō called 今市 Imaichi. As Nikkō developed into the fantastically beautiful pilgrimage site that it is still today, the neighboring town of Imaichi stayed the same – a backwater mountain town. People would be blown away by Nikkō and then see Imaichi and be all like “Meh.” And so now the word いまいち imaichi means something like “almost” or “not bad” or… well, I think “meh” pretty much sums it up.

Kawagoe Toshogu
Senba Toshogu (Kawagoe)

Fans of the Shinsengumi might be interested to know that after the Boshin War, Matsudaira Katamori, lord of Aizu, became Chief Priest of Nikkō Tōshō-gū. In this capacity, he continued to serve the Tokugawa despite the fall of the shōgunate.

Multiple Enshrinements

Throughout the Edo Period, various towns and domains erected Tōshō-gū erected Tōshō-gū all over Japan. I’ve mentioned the first two, in Kunōzan and Nikkō. In Tōkyō, there is one in Ueno Park, former Kan’ei-ji, which is very nice. There is another one in Shiba Park at Zōjō-ji, which was rebuilt after the firebombing in WWII. There is a huge gingko tree said to have been planted by Tokugawa Iemitsu which survived the bombing and is a cultural asset of the Tōkyō Metropolis. Kawagoe has a somewhat famous Tōshō-gū. Nagoya also has a famous Tōshō-gū. This spring I was in Gyōda, Saitama, which is the straight up boonies and even they had a Tōshō-gū. There was also a Tōshō-gū in 紅葉山 Momijiyama, one of the gardens on the premises of Edo Castle. In fact, all the shōgun’s were enshrined in Momijiyama. But when the Meiji Emperor moved into Edo Castle, he tore all of them down.

Dick move, bro. Dick move.

Momijiyama Toshogu
Momijiyama Toshogu (Edo Castle Toshogu, Tokugawa Shogun Cemetery). This picture depicts Momijiyama and you can see Tokugawa Iemitsu returning by palanquin from veneration at the shrine.

In the Edo Period there were nearly 500 shrines called Tōshō-gū throughout the country, today the number may only be around 130. The shōgunate expected daimyō to venerate Tōshō Dai-Gongen (Ieyasu) routinely. But daimyō processions across the country to Nikkō were extremely costly. This is the reason there are so many Tōshō-gū in Tōkyō, let alone all over the country. Building a local shrine satisfied the demands of the shōgunate and reduced travel expenses. Of course, under the best of conditions, Nikkō Tōshō-gū was the preferred destination for the adoration of Ieyasu. But sometimes things didn’t work out, and in those times, daimyō could attend to their veneration duties locally.

Hiroshima Toshogu
Hiroshima Toshogu

For More Information About Nikkō Tōshō-gū:


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